How AC Milan turned things around and became Scudetto contenders again

By Isak Möller -

For the first time in a decade, AC Milan are genuine Serie A title contenders. Since being runners-up in the 2011/12 campaign, Milan have never been close to winning the Scudetto.

Their third- and second-place finishes in 2013 and 2021 were admirable but the club was well off the pace set by eventual champions Juventus and Inter.

This season, though, it is Milan setting the pace and hopes are high that the Rossoneri can end an 11-year wait to become Italian champions. As you can see here, they right now position themselves as favourites to win the Serie A:

So, how have Milan been transformed into title contenders this year? These are the main factors:

Smart recruitment

Milan’s current high-flying status is a culmination of three years of generally excellent player recruitment. Going back to the 2019/20 season, Milan signed the likes of French full-back Theo Hernandez, Algerian midfielder Ismael Bennacer, and the young Portuguese winger Rafael Leao. Hernandez and Bennacer established themselves as key first-team players, while Leao has emerged as one of the most exciting young talents in Europe.

Then there was the transformative January arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as well as Simon Kjaer and Alexis Saelemaekers. Returning to the club for a second spell, the Swedish striker immediately became a leader on and off the pitch, scoring 10 goals in 18 Serie A games to give Milan the platform to kick on for the following two seasons.

Ibrahimovic followed that up with 15 goals in 19 league games last season, and while injury has limited his impact in the current campaign, he remains an important figure within the club.

In 2020/21, the smart recruitment continued with the arrivals of Italian midfielder Sandro Tonali, French full-back Pierre Kalulu, and English defender Fikayo Tomori. All have proved successful signings and established themselves as first-team regulars.

This season’s transfer business was quieter by comparison, turning Tonali and Tomori’s loan deals permanent and bringing in Olivier Giroud on a free transfer, but Milan did deliver one very important piece of business by signing Mike Maignan to replace Gianluigi Donnarumma. Attempting to replace a No. 1 goalkeeper, whom Milan assumed would keep the gloves for the next decade, was never going to be easy but Maignan has more than justified Milan’s decision.

All of these newer arrivals, combined with the existing Italian backbone, have formed a balanced and cohesive unit that has turned Milan into contenders.

Sticking with Pioli

After six seasons in which Milan had fallen way behind the other giants of Italian football, the club turned to Marco Giampaolo to help revive their fortunes for the 2019/20 season. It proved a disastrous appointment and Giampaolo was sacked after four months and seven matches in charge, losing four of those games.

Milan opted for Stefano Pioli as a short-term solution, and the Italian was tasked with steadying the ship ahead of the expected arrival of German Ralf Rangnick at the end of that season.

Pioli more than steadied the ship, with Milan playing some of their best football in recent years. Milan ended up scoring 63 Serie A goals – their largest total since 2013. The Rossoneri’s revival was then solidified by the 4-2 thrashing of Juventus for the club’s first victory over the Turin giants since 2016.

Following his impressive impact at the San Siro, Milan scrapped their plans to recruit Rangnick and offered Pioli a two-year contract. That has proved an inspiring decision as Milan finished runners-up last season and are now in pole position for the title this year.

Struggling rivals

Since Milan last won the title in 2011, the club have had to take a backseat during one of the most dominant periods by one club in Italian football history. While part of Milan’s title drought can be attributed to self-inflicted regression – finishing 8th, 10th, 7th, 6th, 6th, 5th, and 6th was not good enough for a club of Milan’s stature – it was also down to Juventus’ dominance.

The Bianconeri were largely untouchable as they won nine successive titles and became by far the best team in Italy. Then last season, there was no stopping Inter Milan as the Nerazzurri cruised to the scudetto by 12 points.

However, an opportunity has opened up for Milan this season as Juventus continue to struggle following last year’s dramatic decline, while Inter have not been able to hit the same heights since Romelu Lukaku, Achraf Hakimi, and Antonio Conte left the club.

Inter, along with Napoli, remain Milan’s biggest challengers for the title but the drop in level of their biggest rivals has given the Rossoneri a golden opportunity to seal the scudetto.

Early European exit blessing in disguise

A more recent development that will no doubt help Milan’s title push was their early exit from the Champions League. Drawn in a tough Group B alongside Liverpool, Atletico Madrid, and Porto, Milan finished bottom and therefore even failed to qualify for the Europa League.

While an early exit from Europe’s premier club competition is always a disappointment, it could prove a blessing in disguise for Milan, who can now focus solely on their league title challenge.

Tags AC Milan Serie A Stefano Pioli
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